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Laura S. v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Maine

August 27, 2019

LAURA S. Plaintiff,



         Laura S. appeals from a decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying her Social Security disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C.A. § 405(g) (West 2019). This appeal raises two issues: (1) whether the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred by failing to recognize Laura S.'s back and visual conditions as severe impairments, and (2) whether the ALJ's mental residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determination was unsupported by substantial evidence because he relied on his own lay opinion instead of the medical opinion evidence. Because I conclude that the ALJ's RFC determination was not supported by substantial evidence, I vacate the administrative decision and remand the matter for further proceedings.


         The Commissioner's final decision is the March 27, 2018, decision of the ALJ. See ECF No. 9-2 at 19-30. The ALJ's decision tracks the familiar five-step sequential evaluation process for analyzing social security disability claims. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (West 2019). The claimant carries the burden of production on the first four steps, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner at Step 5. Purdy v. Berryhill, 887 F.3d 7, 9-10 (1st Cir. 2018). The five-steps proceed as follows:

1) if the applicant is engaged in substantial gainful work activity, the application is denied; 2) if the applicant does not have, or has not had within the relevant time period, a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the application is denied; 3) if the impairment meets the conditions for one of the “listed” impairments in the Social Security regulations, then the application is granted[.]

Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001). If the impairment does not meet a listed impairment at Step 3, the ALJ must, as an interim step, determine the claimant's “residual functional capacity, ” § 404.1520(a)(4), (e), which is the most a claimant can still do despite their limitations. § 416.945(a)(1). The RFC is used to assess Step 4 and Step 5:

4) [I]f the applicant's “residual functional capacity” is such that he or she can still perform past relevant work, then the application is denied; 5) if the applicant, given his or her residual functional capacity, education, work experience, and age, is unable to do any other work, the application is granted.

Seavey, 276 F.3d at 5. Put differently, the steps ask (1) was the claimant working during the period of disability, (2) did they have a severe impairment during that period, (3) did the impairment impose limitations that the Social Security Administration deems disabling, (4) if not, could the claimant still do their past jobs given their maximum capacity to engage in mental and physical work, and (5) were there any jobs the claimant could perform?

         At Step 1, the ALJ found that Laura S. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity beginning in January 2017. ECF No. 9-2 at 22. At Step 2, the ALJ found that Laura S.'s affective disorder, personality disorder, and anxiety-related disorder constituted severe impairments, but that other issues, such as her back and vision problems, did not. Id. at 22-24. At Step 3, the ALJ found that Laura S.'s impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 24-25. The ALJ was therefore required to make a determination of Laura S.'s RFC, and he found that she had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following non-exertional limitations:

[S]he is limited to performing simple tasks in a non-fast-paced type work setting (no assembly line work), involving no interaction with the public as part of the job duties and only occasional interaction with supervisors and co-workers with no team, tandem and/or collaborative work. She is limited to simple work-related decisions and adapting to simple changes in routine work setting.

Id. at 26. Based on that RFC, the ALJ found at Step 4 that Laura S. was unable to perform any past relevant work. Id. at 29. At Step 5, however, he found that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform. Id. at 29-30. The ALJ therefore concluded that Laura S. was not disabled during the alleged period of disability, and denied her disability insurance benefits. Id. at 30.


         A court must affirm the administrative decision provided the decision is based on the correct legal standards and is supported by substantial evidence, even if the record contains evidence capable of supporting an alternative outcome. Manso-Pizarro v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996) (per curiam); Rodriguez Pagan v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 819 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence is evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a finding. Applebee v. Berryhill, 744 Fed.Appx. 6 (1st Cir. 2018) (per curiam); see also Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019). “The ALJ's findings of fact are conclusive when supported by substantial evidence, but they are not conclusive when derived by ignoring evidence, misapplying the law, or judging matters entrusted to experts.” Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999) (internal citation omitted).

         III. ...

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